Jakes and Jones

September 1, 2020

The first time Grace Jones screamed about her alleged rape wasn’t while it was allegedly happening. It was when Jakes Ngcobo, the nurse, walked into her room one morning.

   She shouted inarticulate words. Jakes couldn’t decipher them but he could tell they were directed at him and that she wanted him out of the room. When Marius van der Velde, the manager of the retirement home, finally managed to calm her down to a level at which she was vaguely comprehensible, she told him she had been raped the previous night. By Jakes.

   Although she expected the staff to call her Mrs. Jones, she always called them by their first names, unless she was being belligerent or cutting or accusatory, in which case she did call them by their last name. Only in Jakes’s case, she couldn’t pronounce the click on the c, or its proximity to the Ng, or the proximity of the N to the g, and so it came out “Nigobo”.  
   “It was Nigobo, he did it,” she said.
   Marius’s first thought was about the unlikelihood of anyone raping an 84-year-old. But this was South Africa, and such stories had been reported in the press before, as had rapes of infants. His second thought was to keep the allegation quiet. If it got out, it would be bad. Bad for the retirement home’s reputation. Bad for the residents’ equilibrium. Bad for his career. But it is very difficult, he knew, to keep an unpredictable 84-year-old quiet. His third thought was to wonder why she hadn’t screamed during the alleged rape itself, but he supposed that anyone, even an unpredictable 84-year-old, can be kept quiet if she is threatened and frightened enough. And his fourth thought was, could Jakes really have done such a thing?
   Jakes had worked at Simunye House for almost two years. He’d been a model nurse. Kind, gentle and patient. The residents liked him. It was unlikely that he was capable of it, Marius thought. But, not impossible. Marius knew that you could have a conversation or acquaintance or even a friendship with a murderer or paedophile or fraudster or wife beater and never know that’s who they were.
   Regardless, he knew he couldn’t do nothing. He had to do something, even something small, to show he wasn’t being passive, to assert a bit of authority and order in the place, and to placate Grace. So he had two conversations. First, one with Jakes. And then one with Grace’s daughter.


Jakes agreed to go on immediate paid leave. It wasn’t really tenable for him to stay. There was uncertainty about what would happen now, and at what pace things might progress or resolve.
   “Let’s just give it a week or two,” Marius said, looking at Jakes, who appeared shocked and shaken. Jakes’s innocence seemed implicit in his reaction to the accusation, but he hadn’t outright denied it. And Marius couldn’t be seen to be taking sides or assuming Jakes’s innocence.
   Jakes packed his stuff. He didn’t say a word to any of the other staff. And they, usually so full of camaraderie, didn’t say anything to him. They weren’t overtly hostile, they just put their heads down and carried on with their jobs. Jakes wondered if they were regarding him with suspicion, if they thought he might have done it, even after knowing him for two years. He was soft but strong. He could overpower most women easily. 
   He’d been very happy in his job. It was his first job. He was doing what he wanted to do, what he felt was a calling, with people who felt the same way. But as he left the estate, he looked at the name on the gate with, for the first time, a moment of cynicism.
   Simunye House was twenty five years old. It had been built during democratic South Africa’s honeymoon phase; the period when the phrase “the rainbow nation” had been coined by the Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, and caught on. Around the same time, SABC1, the state-run television channel, had composed a jingle that went “Simunye, we are one…” and the developers of the retirement home thought it was a timely and highly marketable name for the home. 
   It was well-run, very profitable and, by now, in high demand; there was a waiting list. Grace was lucky to have got in.


“What are you doing about it?” Joan Jones demanded of Marius a few minutes into his second big conversation for the day. 
   Five years before, Joan had decided she was going to move to the coast. She was tired of city life and, frankly, tired of bearing the burden of looking after her mother. Not that she physically looked after Grace. She checked in most days, usually for a cup of tea and biscuits, brought on a tray by the domestic worker, Prudence, and it had begun to be an obligation she resented. Robert, her brother, lived in England, so the responsibility, though self-proclaimed, was hers. But her husband was retiring and they had decided to move to their holiday house permanently. Grace’s care couldn’t be left to Prudence, who was given a severance that met legal obligations. And although Joan didn’t have Grace’s name down on any waiting lists, her husband knew someone on the board at Simunye House who agreed to “put in a word.”
   Joan made the four-hour drive from the coast that afternoon. By five o’ clock, she was in Marius’s office.
   “There surely must be some sort of investigation!”
   “And why haven’t the police been? They surely must do some tests or whatever they do to prove there was a… an incident, and to get some, you know, evidence?”
   “Mrs. Jones, the police have been here,” Marius said, “but your mother wouldn’t allow them anywhere near her. She’s been quite hysterical.”
   “But surely you can, you know, pacify her or, you know, medicate?”
   “We can’t just tranquilise her against her will. Not unless she’s threatening or disrupting others. Now Mrs Jone-”
   “Well there surely must be, you know, some way, something.”
   “Mrs. Jones, please. There’s something I must tell you. Please take a breath and listen to me.”
   “What is it?” Joan said, agitated. But she took a seat and then a breath. Two, in fact.
   “Mrs. Jones, it’s been a while since you visited your mother.“
   “Well, I live out of town. It’s not so easy you know.”
   “I’m not making any accusations or insinuations, Mrs. Jones. It’s just that, it’s been quite a few months, if I’m not mistaken. And there’s been a change in your mother’s condition.”
   “What kind of change? What condition?”
   “Your mother started to show signs of dementia. Just small things she couldn’t remember. Or, things she remembered differently to how they actually happened.”
   “But why did no one tell me?”
   “We weren’t sure at first. It was, well, borderline to begin with. Even the psychologist wasn’t sure. But lately it’s become more pronounced.”
   There was a pause for the first time since Joan had walked into Marius’s office.
   “But what does that mean about, you know, the rape? That it didn’t happen?”
   “It may have happened. But, it may not have.”
   There was another pause, this one longer than the first.
   “It’s unspeakable,” Joan said. And then, “I want to speak to the nurse.”


“There’s a… thing going on,” Jakes told Peter.
   “A thing?”
   “With me and Mrs. Jones.”
   “The rude one?”
   “She’s saying I raped her.”
   “What?” Peter almost laughed. “When?”
   “This morning. I mean, she made the accusation this morning.”
   “But that’s obviously absurd. In any case, isn’t she losing her marbles?”
   “Well she keeps going on about it, and about me being the one who did it. And now her daughter’s got involved, and she told me she wants to press charges.”
   “Mrs. Jones refused to be examined, so they can’t get any evidence. I mean, biologically, or whatever.”
   “So they can’t prove you’re guilty.”
   “I don’t think so. But I also can’t prove I’m innocent.”
   “Don’t they have cameras?”
   “Not in the rooms. It’s a privacy thing.”
   “Then it’s her word against yours. And you’re not senile.”
   “No. But an accusation is an accusation. You should have seen the staff.”
   Neither of them said anything for a moment. There was, they both knew, a way to make Jakes’s innocence almost beyond question. But, Peter knew, Jakes might almost prefer to be found guilty.


Jakes had never slept with a woman. He kissed one, once, when he was 16, but he didn’t like it. He’d known he was gay since he was a boy. But he came from a culture where being a homosexual was worse than being a rapist. Rapists were criminals, but at least they were men. That’s what Jakes’s father would say. That’s what his uncles would say, and it wouldn’t have surprised Jakes if some of his uncles had raped. Jakes also carried the burden of being the only son, so there were even greater expectations of him. As for him being a nurse, there was an air of embarrassment about it in Jakes’s family. But he was the only member of the family ever to have got a professional qualification, and he earned more than anyone else in the family ever had, so there was also some pride.
   None of his childhood friends knew he was gay. Many of his current friends didn’t know. It was only after he moved to the city to study that he very cautiously and selectively came out. By Peter’s standards, Jakes was hardly out at all. They had been together for two years, since just before Jakes got the job at Simunye House. They were as committed as they could imagine being. But they didn’t live together, and most people who knew them assumed they were just good friends.
   It was never in Jakes’s plans to be open. He had no intention of letting anyone other than his closest friends know, on the remote chance that word might get back to his family. There was never any public affection with Peter outside of their closest circle of friends, in case someone saw. As far as Jakes had always been concerned, it would be a secret until his family, and certainly his parents’ generation, died.
   But Grace Jones was white and wealthy, and could afford astute lawyers. Jakes was black and, he knew, at a disadvantage, especially if the judge was white. His sexuality wouldn’t make it objectively impossible for him to have raped, of course, but in terms of perception it would tip the scales in his legal favour. Not in his familial one, though. 
   Jakes had some thinking to do. Meanwhile, Grace and Joan seemed to have done as much thinking as they wanted to, and their minds were made up.


Grace continued to claim she was raped. She quite liked all the attention, Marius thought, to his frustration. He wanted to keep things quiet, but she talked about it in the dining room at meal times, in the common area where the TV was, outside on the terrace, and any time and place there was someone to listen. For her efforts, she convinced and won sympathy from many of the residents, some of the staff, and Joan. And, supported and encouraged by Joan, Grace did, indeed, press charges. Public prosecutors told Grace and Joan they weren’t confident, so instead they sought the advice of private attorneys, who were more enthusiastic about taking the civil case on.
   “They would be, wouldn’t they,” Robert declared. He was of the opinion that this “crusade”, as he put it, was driven by Joan’s residual guilt of having deserted Grace; that fighting this battle at her mother’s side served a more selfish purpose than she would admit. But he didn’t say it out loud. He did say, “I can only imagine what it will end up costing,” but it wasn’t a question so Joan didn’t answer. She had power of attorney over Grace’s affairs so she could do what she damn well liked, she thought. But she didn’t say it out loud. She did say, “even if you don’t believe her, I do,” but it wasn’t a question so Robert didn’t answer. His opinion, which he also kept private, was that his mother had always had a malicious streak. It was why he’d fled as soon as he finished school. That meanness, mixed with a dash of enduring racism and now dementia, was a nasty cocktail.
   Meanwhile, this was more excitement than the residents of the retirement home had had in years. They discussed the merits and demerits of the accusations passionately, at length and at any opportunity, including, to Marius’s  horror, when they had visitors. It didn’t take long for word to get out beyond the estate’s electrified walls.


The headline in the gossipy daily read “Simunye: we aren’t one” and the article described how Simunye House’s almost exclusively white residents were split down the middle.
   Like Marius, Jakes had hoped it would all blow over quietly, but now it was public and he would have to tell his family about the accusation. If his parents found out from someone else it would add insult to their injury. Not that it made a difference to their reaction. Proving his point to Peter about being guilty until proven innocent, his mother was horrified, and assumed it was true. Nothing Jakes said convinced or consoled her. His father didn’t say a word, but went to the shebeen and pondered the developments over four or five hours and almost twice as many beers.
   Jakes’s next call was to Marius.
   “Do you know half our waiting list have taken their names off it?” Marius said. Jakes wasn’t sure if was looking for sympathy or a scapegoat. “The board wants answers,” he continued, but Jakes didn’t offer him any.
   “So, about me coming back to work,” Jakes started.
   “Yes. I mean, no. Not until, well, I don’t know when. It’s the board’s decision, you understand. But it’s with full pay, for now.”
   “I understand,” Jakes said, trying to sound gracious and magnanimous, even though it was what he was hoping for. He couldn’t face going back to work with half the residents and staff looking at him, or not looking at him, like he was a rapist. And he didn’t have options – no one else would hire him now – so he considered himself lucky to still have an income. For the time being, he’d worry about his reputation, and his future, and his predicament, and his family. But not about feeding himself. At least, not any more than normal.


Jakes was a careful eater, having been diagnosed with diabetes in his first year of study. So when the virus started spreading in other parts of the world and it was becoming clear that diabetics were at risk, Jakes was anxious. When cases starting popping up in South Africa and the country went into lockdown, Jakes was more anxious, and quietly relieved not to be at work. But Marius’s assurances about his salary were somewhat vague; he’d left open the possibility that it might be finite, perhaps until the case came to a conclusion one way or another, perhaps not that long. After all, it was going to take longer than anyone expected now. Some legal services had been suspended. And the longer it all went on, the more likely it would be, Jakes thought, that he’d be let go. At which point, Peter told him, he might have a legal case of his own (if he could afford lawyers) – “retrenchment” might be a convenient way for the board to get rid of him. It would serve a public relations purpose for them; they could say the nurse in question was no longer there; it might encourage people to put their names back on the waiting list. 
   But all of this was speculation, accentuated by all the free time Jakes had on his hands during this hibernation. For weeks, nothing happened. Jakes spoke to a confidant at Simunye House who told him what the state of affairs was, and it was status quo: Grace was not taking her foot off the accelerator and even though the residents seemed to have gotten over their initial excitement about it all, “public opinion” seemed, on balance, to be against him. Anecdotally, at least. Outside of Simunye House, nothing much could happen until the legal wheels started turning again. The case was effectively in limbo, and Jakes was in purgatory: neither here nor there, not guilty or innocent, not captive or free; and, simultaneously, both relieved and frustrated, both keen for things to stay where they were and hopeful for them to go somewhere else, both eager and fearful for what might come next. 


What did come next frightened Jakes. In the space of a week, there were five positive cases at Simunye House – three residents and two staff. The week after that, eight more. Marius phoned Jakes.
   “We’re short-staffed. Six are away today, I don’t know if they’ve got symptoms or if they’re scared. Anyway, we need you to come to work.”
   Jake had no choice. The case wasn’t cancelled but his suspension, or his leave of absence, or whatever it was – Marius had never actually given it a name – apparently was. He couldn’t stay away and expect to be paid. He couldn’t ask Peter, whose job was in jeopardy, to support him; if anything, it might have to be the other way round. And he certainly couldn’t ask his parents for money. But, as terrified as he was, the nursing home needed him, and he liked feeling needed. So he went back to face the music, the virus, and Grace. 
   The response to his return was mixed. Some, residents and staff, were happy to see him, told him they’d missed him and that they believed him. Others were cool and aloof and kept their distance. 
   Jakes was dreading seeing Grace, but that didn’t happen on his first day back. What did happen was that he was at the back of the TV lounge where half a dozen residents were scattered in a somewhat vain attempt at social distancing, watching an old concert. At one point, Grace Jones came onto the stage singing Slave To The Rhythm
   “Look! It’s Grace Jones!” one of the residents cried. 
   “It’s Grace Jones!” the rest of them echoed in laughter. 
   Jakes knew that Grace, the resident, was deeply embarrassed to share a name with Grace Jones, the singer. He’d seen a nurse once ask her if she knew the musician. Grace ignored the question. But the nurse pressed on, gushing over how she’d listened to Grace Jones CDs for hours on end when she was a teenager, and what an inspiration she’d been, and how brave she was, and how much she loved this song and that song. Grace still said nothing while the nurse went on and on, then she snapped.
   “That woman is scandalous! Running around like that, behaving a man. Don’t mention her name to me again!”
   Apparently, Jakes wasn’t the only one who knew of Grace’s loathing of the singer.
   “Leave Grace alone,” one of the frailer residents said. “She’s been through so much.”
   There was a whisper, and then a few heads turned around and looked in Jakes’s direction briefly, before looking away as if they’d been caught out. It was like watching a group of gossiping school children, Jakes thought, then turned around and left. He finished his first day back feeling slightly worse than he did starting it, and still dreading seeing Grace.


When they did see each other in the passage, Jakes froze, but Grace didn’t flinch. She looked him in the eye for a moment, but her expression didn’t change or reveal anything. She merely walked past him.
   “Surely you must have seen him?” Joan asked her mother on the phone from the coast, where she’d returned to survive lockdown. It was a decision not taken without guilt, but she’d have been unable to visit her mother had she stayed in the city, so there seemed no point.
   “Seen who?” Grace asked.
   “Nigobo,” Joan said. “Marius phoned me to tell me he was, you know, back at work.”
   “Is he? Well, I don’t believe I’ve seen him. But they all look the same to me.”
   “Don’t say that in court, mother.”
   “With their masks on, I mean.”
   As soon as she put the phone down, Grace marched to Marius’s office to complain.
   “It’s an outrage!” Grace shouted.
   Initially, Marius had half expected Grace to forget the whole incident, or accusation, within a few days of it happening. But as time went on and the more she spoke about it, the more convinced she seemed and the more convincing she became to others. She had, over time, slowly elaborated with certain details that a talented novelist might produce. “He spoke softly and evenly, and told me if I made a noise any louder than his whisper, he’d hurt me,” she said. “He had a Swiss Army knife, a red one, and he held it with the blade open in front of my face.” Even Marius, originally so inclined to think the whole thing was a dream she’d confused with reality, now had moments when he thought she might be telling the truth. 
   “We don’t have a choice, Mrs. Jones. We have sick residents and we have to think of them. We have fewer nursing staff than usual at a time when we need more.”
   “There is a rapist in our midst!”
   “Please, for the sake of everyone else, try to not make a scene. Let the legal process run its course.”
   “The legal process is as slow as a snail! That’s what my husband used to say, and he was a lawyer. I’ll be dead before it runs its course!”
   Lucid articulations like this still occasionally came from Grace, punctuating her dementia. Marius was quite taken with the honesty of it – not just the apparent expectation and acceptance of her possible imminent death, but also the reference to her husband, who Marius had never heard her mention before. He didn’t know Mr. Jones was a lawyer, only that he died before Robert and Joan got to their teens, leaving Grace (said the board member who helped get her in) “alone, angry and very well off.”
   “I’m 75 you know!” Grace added, leaving Marius to question how coherent her previous utterance had, in fact, been. She was right about one thing, though, he thought: the legal process was slower even than normal. Separately, he, Jakes and many of the residents felt that things would play out to some conclusion before the legal process got it there.
   And Grace, who was not interested in not making a scene, did her bit to force the issue.


Grace was on the lookout, and when she saw Jakes she made the event quite dramatic. 
   “It’s him!” she pointed. This was in the dining area at lunch time, so it was full, despite being spread out. The place fell into a hush for a moment until someone dropped a fork on their plate. Grace continued to play to the audience. “I can’t believe he has the gall to be here.” The woman sitting next to her leaned over and put her hand on Grace’s shoulder; Grace put her head down, shaking it slowly in either anger or pain, it was difficult to see which.
   If her intention, conscious or unconscious, was to win sympathy from everyone else, it mostly failed. Those who were already in her corner her didn’t need the show, and she alienated herself more from those who weren’t. But she succeeded in getting to Jakes.
   “I think she knows that it’s wrong, but it’s too strong to let it go now,” he said later that evening to Peter. “It’s bad enough stressing about the disease without worrying about this. Today was only my third day back. How am I going to feel in three weeks?”
   “The board should have nipped this in the bud,” Peter said. 
   “Maybe I’m the only one who can put a stop to it before it drags on longer. If I came out, her lawyers might convince her to drop the whole thing.”
   “Are you serious?”
   Jakes didn’t answer immediately.
   “Maybe I can tell her daughter. She might be reasonable. And she might agree not to say anything to anyone.”
   “Jakes, you know I would support you being open. But you can’t assume she’ll be that discreet. Not if she’s anything like her mother.”
   “I can’t think of any other way to prove my innocence. I keep wondering what will be worse – going to court and having the world assume I’m guilty, or facing my family with the truth.”
   His family had gone quiet. During the first few days, his mother harassed him with her shame and blame. But he hadn’t heard from her for weeks. Even his sister, usually an ally, hadn’t returned his calls.
   “Maybe it would be a relief to them after all this,” Jake muttered, not really believing the words.
   Back at Simunye House the following day, Jakes tried to avoid Grace, unsuccessfully. But her performance was identical to and therefore less convincing than the previous day.
   “It’s him!” she cried again, this time in the recreational area. The other residents were quickly becoming immune to her displays and complaints; most looked up, but went right back to whatever they were doing. Grace seemed to wait for some sympathy but it was mostly unforthcoming. She turned abruptly and went back to examining a pile of puzzle pieces as if nothing at all had happened; as if she might not have recalled the last minute of her life. 
   Later, in one of the resident’s rooms, Jonathan Pringle said to Jakes, “Nurse, forgive me for prying. But, well, it takes one to know one. I haven’t told many people in my life, and certainly no one here, but… I wondered if you were… well, I’m… homosexual, you see.”
   Jakes stared at him, frozen.
   “It’s just that if you are, you’re younger than me, it doesn’t matter like it used to, and if you spoke up, it might help with this… situation. If you are.”
   “I’m not!” Jake said too defensively. He felt himself flushing, and left the room.


“I saw him talking to Grace a while afterwards, quite heatedly,” Jakes told Peter. “What if he told her? She’ll tell everyone.”
   “But it would blow her case.”
   “She may not think that far. And it would blow my cover.”
   “Yesterday you were talking about coming out anyway.”
   “Well I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
   Jakes shook his head, an action Peter couldn’t see on the phone.
   “I can’t even hold you,” Jakes said with a wobble in his voice.
   “Well, you could if you’d agreed to live with me.” Then, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to rub salt in the wound. I just miss you. I mean, you can’t lay low your whole life, can you?”
   Jakes sighed.
   “I don’t know. But at least for the next week I can. I’m on night shift.”


Night shift started at six. There’d be a busy couple of hours during changeover, but mostly away from the residents. After eight, things got quiet. By nine, the few staff on duty – now fewer even than usual – were in and out of the nurses’ lounge and on call.
   For the first two nights, Jakes avoided Grace. He avoided Jonathan Pringle, too, deliberately, still unsure of Jonathan’s intentions and ambivalent about his suggestion. 
   On the third night, a desperate wail came from one of the resident’s rooms. The voice was unmistakeable: Grace’s. Jakes knew it was her, and for a while did nothing, hoping the other night nurse, who’d gone to check on a resident, would respond. But Grace’s moans became louder and more urgent.
   He got up and walked uncertainly toward her room. He opened her door, but left the light off – there was enough light coming from the passage for him to see his way around, and hopefully too little for her to make him out.
   “Where am I? Who brought me here?” she cried with the pathos of a woman who recalled that she once had strength and influence.
   “You’re at Simunye house,” he said quietly and, he hoped, anonymously.
   “Samoonyay House?”
   “The retirement home.”
   Grace didn’t say anything. In the quiet, Jakes smelled something he may have been too nervous to notice earlier. He started to sniff more deeply to investigate, but stopped inhaling quickly when he realised Grace had soiled herself. Then he heard her trying to smother a whimper.
   “Mrs Jones, I’m going to help you get up and take you to the bathroom, is that alright?”
   In the dim light he saw her nod. He put one hand behind her back and took her hand with the other. He felt something with a doughy texture between their fingers and guessed it was faeces. Without flinching, he lifted her gently. He took his time. He swung her so that her legs hung off the side of the bed, feet dangling centimetres above the floor. He pulled her forward so her toes touched the ground, then lifted her, put his arm around her, and walked her slowly to her bathroom. She said nothing. 
   “Mrs. Jones?” Jakes said when they got to the bathroom, “I need to switch the light on, okay?”
   “Yes. But I’ll be alright on my own.”
   Jakes slid his arm away until he was sure she was steady on her feet. He turned away and switched the bathroom light on with his back to her. The door closed between them. 
   He switched the bedroom light on and removed the sheets and blankets, took them in a bundle to the laundry, and returned with clean linen. He made her bed, leaving a flap open at the top. Grace was still in the bathroom.
   “Mrs Jones?” he called softly through the door. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
   He heard Grace clear her throat.
   “I need a nightgown, please.”
   Jakes found a nightgown in her cupboard. He knocked on the bathroom door, like his mom did when he was a boy and she took him shopping at a “smart” mall outlet that had change rooms where you could try clothes on. Grace opened the door enough to get half an arm out and accept the new garment from Jakes, like he had from his mother at the mall. Jakes stood for a minute, and considered switching the light off, both for Grace’s dignity and for his anonymity; he wondered if, possibly, she didn’t know who he was. But Grace emerged from the bathroom before he’d made his mind up. 
   Jakes approached her and offered his arm, which she accepted. He walked her to the bed and helped her sit on the open flap. 
   “Would you switch the light off now please,” she said, in a tone that, to Jakes, suggested detachment, or resignation perhaps. Or maybe it was authority masked with shame, or shame attempting to be masked with authority. Jakes obliged. He went to the switch at her bedroom door, turned the light off, and in the murkiness, his eyes not yet adjusted, watched her lie down.
   She took a deep breath, exhaled at length. Jakes started to close her door and leave.
   “Thank you, Jakes,” he heard her say.
   “You’re welcome. Good night, Mrs. Jones.”


Jakes didn’t see Grace again that week. The following week, when he returned to day shifts, he didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened. He assumed that she, out of pride, wouldn’t have either. If she even remembered.
   When he saw her in the passage, she looked him in the eye, turning her head to hold his gaze as she passed him. She said nothing, she neither frowned nor smiled, but he understood it to be an acknowledgement.
   The next day she saw him again in the dining area but she avoided eye contact. And for the rest of the week no mention at all was made of the alleged rape, either by Grace or the residents. It was almost as if it had gone away, like condensation from a defrosted car window.
   On the Friday afternoon, while Jakes was getting ready to leave for the weekend, Jonathan Pringle approached him.
   “You know, I had a word with Grace,” he said discreetly, almost conspiratorially.
   “What did you say?” Jakes asked anxiously.
   “Only that you’re an innocent boy, and she should lay off.” He raised an eyebrow. “She hasn’t said a thing about it since then.”
   He smiled kindly at Jakes and started to walk off in small, slow steps.
   “Thank you,” Jakes said politely. 
   Maybe Jonathan’s word helped, maybe it didn’t, but one way or another things felt lighter. 
   Still, Jakes wasn’t fully relaxed or reassured, and didn’t want to build his hopes too high. In a way, the silence, the lack of clarity either way, was worse. As far as he knew the charges against him were still in play, and this could be the calm before the storm. With lockdown restrictions easing slightly, the lawyers might be getting ready to advance things. Jakes had a confusing weekend. 
   Then, on the Monday afternoon, Marius called Jakes into his office.


“There’s been a development,” Marius said. He looked at Jakes to try and read a reaction, but Jakes just looked back at him expectantly.
   “They’ve called the hounds off,” Marius said.
   “Excuse me?”
   “The Joneses. The lawyers.” 
   Marius explained that he’d had a call from a formal-sounding Joan around lunch time. ‘We can, you know, put this behind us,’ she’d told him. An even more formal email had followed, he said, and read Jakes the three line message: 
   “‘Dear Mr. van der Velde. We are withdrawing the charges against Nurse Nigobo.’ She spelt it wrong,” he interrupted himself. “‘Please inform him of such. Sincerely, Joan Jones.’ So your name is clear.”
   Jakes nodded, looking down at the floor.
   “I thought you’d be happy.”
   Jakes nodded slowly.
   “I am happy. I am,” he said. “It just needs to sink in.”
   “Well I’ve spoken with the board, and we’re putting out a press release, and writing to everyone who was on the waiting list. To set the record straight.”
   Jakes hated the idea of being the subject of a public communication, but he was too gracious to say so. And perhaps it would serve him some purpose – he could ask for a copy to forward to his family.
   “Thank you, Mr van der Velde.”
   Marius nodded. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through.”
   Jakes left, feeling too relieved to be elated.


“I don’t know if the penny’s dropped that I don’t have to worry anymore,” he said to Peter.
   “We should celebrate. I don’t know how. But somehow.”
   “Maybe a quiet meal at your place.” Jakes suggested.  
   Then next evening they sat at a candlelit table eating a vegetarian curry that Peter had cooked.
   “So what happens now?” Peter asked.
   “I suppose now she’ll go her way and I’ll go mine. I mean, we’ll both still be at Simunye, but I don’t think either of us will mention it. We’ll just pretend the whole thing never happened.”
   “Well maybe in her mind it didn’t. Or soon won’t have.”
   Jakes swallowed a mouthful of curry and sat staring at nothing in particular behind Peter.
   “What is it?” Peter asked.
   “I’ve just realised, I need to tell my parents.”
   “You haven’t told them yet?”
   “That’s not what I mean. Although I haven’t. But, I need to tell them. About us.”
   “Wait, what?”
   “I was scared the whole time, but I think I knew that, if it came to it, a court wouldn’t convict me. It was more the idea of a trial, and what that would make people think. That was the worst part of it all. People thinking I’m something that I’m not. You know?”
   “I do.”
   “I need people to know who I am. And who I’m not. And I’m not who my family thinks I am. And I can’t spend the rest of my life scared that they’ll find out.”
   Peter wiped his mouth, got up, walked around the small table and gave Jakes a kiss.
   “If you want, I’ll be with you when you tell them. You can do it here. Tomorrow.”
   They finished their curry, washed the dishes, and sat down on the couch to watch a movie together.



Dear Martha

July 3, 2020

Dear Martha

I thought about writing to you once before. Well, my therapist suggested it. I didn’t really see the point. She said letters don’t always need to be sent, sometimes they’re more for the writer than the recipient, and it might help me to process what happened. Might help me get over it, she said.

I didn’t want to get over it. Still don’t know if I do. It would be easier. I could get on with my life. I could feel light again. But, I don’t know if I want to let it go. Maybe the way it hurts is part of me now. And maybe it’s better than not feeling anything, which is what I think the alternative might be. 

This isn’t how I wanted to begin the letter. When I started writing, I kind of rehearsed what I’d say, like you rehearse a difficult conversation or confrontation. Then when it actually happens, it doesn’t come out the way you had it in your mind. I didn’t plan to start off telling you about my pain and wanting to hang on to it. I definitely didn’t plan on writing sentences that make me cringe when I read them back. You know me, or you did, and you didn’t know me as someone who speaks about her “pain”. I suppose it’s changed me, in some small ways.

Anyway, I’ve gotten used to carrying it. It was much more fragile before. I used to run into bathroom cubicles at shopping malls just to have a little breakdown in private. But now, most people wouldn’t know how I was feeling. Occasionally I bump into people I haven’t seen for years, and they ask how I am, and I say I’m okay, like anyone would, no big deal, you know. And then they tentatively ask about you. They’re tentative because they don’t know if we’re still together. And they obviously don’t know what happened. Then I say that you died. Just like that. I feel like I should be more considerate. More, I don’t know, gentle, like I should protect them, but I don’t know how to say it subtly so they won’t be shocked. I just can’t say “she passed on”. That isn’t how I talk. They’re not words I use. So I say, “she died.” And then there’s that moment, their reaction when they take it in and they don’t know what to say, and to save them from it I say, “in 2020”. And they mostly assume it was the virus, and sometimes they look surprised and say “but she was so healthy.” Maybe I should tell them more, but I don’t feel like correcting them and going into details. They’re not close friends, they’re acquaintances and I don’t want to burden them with what actually happened and how I really feel. I don’t know if they really want to be burdened. I mean, everyone has their own stuff to deal with. So I don’t really say anything else. They give me their sympathy and support and love, and I say I’m doing okay. I can be dispassionate, and act as if I’ve dealt with it. That’s how I’ve gotten used to carrying it. 

It’s not like I don’t talk to anyone. I mean, my therapist, obviously. Mom sometimes. Jeff and Gina. God, did I talk to Jeff and Gina. I was there practically every night after it happened. They probably liked it because I read Meg her bedtime stories. Maybe they’d have preferred me to wash the dishes, I don’t know. But I would read to Meg and then talk to Jeff and Gina. I took up their evenings for months and months, until I felt like it was too much, and wasn’t fair on them, although they never said anything. They are good friends. The best. I don’t know if I would have got through it without them. So, I do talk. And it’s helped. Though nobody knows I’m writing to you. Not even my therapist.

So. Why I decided to write:

It’s for you, really. I don’t know. To tell you what happened. I thought it might help you get some closure, or something. I mean, I know you aren’t going to read this, but I feel like you’re owed it. The guy was coming up for parole. I started getting all anxious. The whole time he was in jail, I thought about what happened. I obsessed about it, really. How unfair it was. That you died and he ended up getting not even three years, because of some legal technicality or something that I don’t understand and doesn’t make sense. I just wanted that explained to me. Like if it could be explained, I would finally understand, a penny would drop and I would go “oh, okay then”, and be fine and get on with things. Obviously, that’s irrational. But Martha, I still feel that way. I wish it could just be explained to me. Lawyers tried, but I just couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t understand. I feel like a kid. Explain to me why the tooth fairy isn’t real. Explain why boys can’t wear skirts. Explain to me why the man who rings our doorbell doesn’t have a home. When you’re a child the explanations never really make sense. You just come to accept that that’s how things are, eventually, as you get older. You just get used to things being that way. Except I haven’t got used to things being this way.

Anyway, then I heard he was coming up for parole. My therapist said I have to think about the possibility that he’ll be out of jail soon. For a few days I was all over the place. Anxious. Moody. Weepy. And then I thought, maybe he can explain, if no one else can.

Maybe I would be more accepting if I could stop imagining what things would have been like if it didn’t happen. Sometimes I make up little fantasies. Like, I imagine that it’s been forty years or more. That you didn’t die. That things just ended, the way relationships do. That you found someone and that I got married too. And after those forty years, we’re living in different cities but I haven’t ever really gotten over you. I’ve always thought of you, and then I find your number and call you up. And we feel the same excitement we did when we first met. You come to town and meet me out for coffee where we talk about it all. Everything that happened. Why it didn’t work out for us. How our lives turned out. We show each other pictures of our children and grandchildren. We reminisce about how things were, and wonder about how things might have been. And then, I don’t know, I like to imagine that instead of going our separate ways, we stay in touch, and then end up together after all. Like that is how it was meant to be.

Did I ever tell you about Sonny and Joy? Just their names are uplifting, aren’t they? They were friends of my grandparents. They met when one was already married and one was too young to marry, but they fell instantly in love. They lived in the same suburb and they’d bump into each other sometimes, but divorce wasn’t something people did back then, you know, in the 1940s. But they both outlived their spouses, and when Joy was nearly 80 and Sonny was nearly 90 they finally got married, and had a few beautiful years together. Circumstances got in the way, but in the end they got to do what they always wanted to. That’s my fantasy. That you didn’t die, you just went away for a long time, and that in the end we’ll be together.

It’s not fair that we won’t. But this guy still has his whole life ahead of him, and he’ll probably still meet someone and fall in love. Maybe with his true love. I know that “true love” sounds like a Disney movie but I believe in it, because you’re mine. And he took you away from me. 

And then his hearing happened and he got parole. And I started thinking, I want to meet him. No, that sounds wrong. I didn’t want to meet him, I wanted him to meet me. I wanted him to face me. I wanted him to see my pain. And I wanted him to explain. How it is that he’ll still get to make memories with someone when ours were cut short. 

Do you remember our special evenings, Martha? We only did them three or four times. We’d pretend that we’d never met, or that we were on our first date. We’d plan to go somewhere, to a bar or a restaurant, but separately. Then the one time you bought that dress specially. You looked so beautiful. I mean you were absolutely gorgeous. Then the next time, you bought something new again. A blouse. You knew how to pick them, those special evening items. I thought, I’m going to buy something next time. I wanted to be the one to surprise you for a change, to see your reaction for a change. So I did. A dress. I hid it in the cupboard, at the back under a pile of other clothes, so you wouldn’t see it. I was keeping it for our next special evening. But then the virus came, and the bars and restaurants were shut, so we couldn’t have the evening we’d planned. We had to put it off. But that evening never came. So it’s still in the back of the cupboard. I can’t bear to wear it, and I can’t bear to throw it away. 

I don’t know why I never considered seeing him while he was in jail. Maybe I was just content knowing he was there, locked away behind a wall. Like there was a part of the whole thing I could also lock away and not have to think about. But then he was getting out, earlier than I expected, and I did have to think about it. 

Anyway, I asked the lawyers if it would be possible to arrange for me to meet him. Who knows what they thought, but they’re lawyers, not therapists, so they got in touch with his lawyers, and we waited, and we waited some more. It was awful, that waiting, that having to prepare for if he said yes and if he said no. And then they came back and said yes, he’d agreed. 

And then I sort of freaked out, and I started stalling. They wanted to make a date, and I kept putting it off. I think I was realising that he wasn’t going to be able to give me any explanation that would make it better. He probably wouldn’t give me any explanation at all. So what did I want from the meeting? And then I got angrier and angrier. With the world, for not being able to explain and make it okay. With him, for what he’d done. With myself, for suggesting the meeting in the first place, for putting myself in this position.

In the end I decided to do it for you. I mean, obviously it was for me, even if I didn’t know what I wanted or expected. But I felt, I told myself, that I was going to do it for you. That maybe it would put something to rest, or give you some kind of bizarre peace. Or that, at the very least, I could tell you what happened. That I would meet him, and then write to you and tell you what he said.

And Martha, what he said was sorry. That’s all he said. Over and over again. I even got angry with him for that. I wanted him to be, I don’t know, arrogant, delinquent, psychopathic. So I could finally vent my anger where it most needed venting. At the source. But he wasn’t any of those things. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He could hardly speak loudly enough for me to hear him. It wasn’t what I’d imagined. It was disappointing. I wanted to curse him, hate him, make him feel what I feel. But he took that away from me with his remorse. And then I could hardly say anything either. All the things I’d imagined saying, everything I planned on saying – all about us and what we had, what he took away from us, how I’d been since it happened – it all just felt, I don’t know, pointless. Like he already knew. So we just sort of sat there. And he just kept saying sorry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

In the end, I realised, he was just a stupid kid. Doing a stupid thing. After two months of lockdown and no liquor, he just couldn’t wait to go out and get smashed. And the very first day he could buy booze, he did get smashed, and then he got into his car. He wasn’t the only one. He was just the one who drove into the back of you and killed you. It was random. It could have been someone else in both cars. But it was also the consequence of a series of actions. His actions. And he has to deal with that, too, for the rest of his life. Just a stupid kid who did a stupid thing. 

I’m not excusing or forgiving it. I am still angry. I still want it explained to me so it can all be better. But I also think, it’s not that different from people who didn’t wear masks. Is that any less stupid? Is it less selfish? Going around in public places without a mask, probably thinking, “I won’t get it and if I do I’ll be fine”. Not thinking, “I might have it and be giving it to others.” Except they did give it to others. To old people and people who were already sick, and who got sicker, and died. Those maskless people are also culpable, and they’re still walking around, getting on with their lives, going to the movies, laughing, making plans, totally ignorant that their actions killed someone else. The guy who killed you, he has to live with what he did.

So. That’s what happened. Just what happened. I wish it felt like an ending, I wish it resolved something, but it didn’t. So I don’t know if it helps you. I just wanted to tell you. 

Me, I feel better and I also feel worse. I don’t know what good that does. But like I said, maybe it’s better than not feeling anything. 

Maybe in time I’ll look back and realise that it did change something. Not an epiphany, not a turning point, just a small something. And maybe it’ll be different in ten years. Or forty years. Maybe I will have met someone else and had children and grandchildren. And maybe I will have packed away my sorrow. 

But for now, there’s no tomorrow. There’s only yesterday, and what we had. And all I had was you, and all you had was me.


I miss you.


With love



A Shadow of Doctor Wu

June 9, 2020

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was a time for grieving, it was a time for rebirth. A time we’d never want repeated, a time we’d later yearn for. 

People were dying. But, people were living. Not in an affirming or exhilarating sense; rather, in a slow, mindful, present sense. Between the fear and anxiety and stress, there was generosity and creativity and hope. A feeling that things could be different; a belief that they must be different; and that this was the opportunity to change.

And we did all change. Not necessarily in ways others could see, nor even in ways we could articulate, but in ways that we carried with us afterward.

But before that, before any of it, before I was even a doctor, I was an idealistic young student who wanted to do good and help desperate, needy people and save lives. By the time I was 30, I knew I was hardly ever saving lives, only making them slightly more comfortable, and mostly for people whose lives really weren’t especially uncomfortable. That had become gratifying enough, though, and I was making good money and living in a renovated house and eating at good restaurants and seeing different parts of the world, and a few years after that paying for expensive medical aid and generous life insurance and private school fees. A few years after that it had all stopped being gratifying and had become routine, and then dull, and then, at times, imprisoning.

So when the call came for people to put themselves forward and on the front lines, I knew I would volunteer. I discussed it with Julia, but I’d made my mind up, and she didn’t stand in my way; she knew I needed something. We, I, didn’t really consider the details and all the possibilities of what it might mean. And if I knew what was coming, I put it out of my mind.

The first weeks were quiet. My practice pretty much came to a standstill and effectively closed. In the hospital, there was barely a trickle of patients. One, then no one. Then another, then none. It was like a waiting game. We thought, maybe we’ll be lucky, maybe it won’t be like they said, the same way children believe that they can will something into being; that if they hope for it hard enough, it’ll come true.

When it happened, it happened fast. Intensive care went from being almost empty to half full in a week; the week after that it was almost at capacity. Julia and I decided I would stay in the flatlet behind the garage. It was usually rented out but our tenant had left suddenly to be with her family before we were locked down. I said goodbye to Rose and Cole knowing that I might see them across the garden but that I wouldn’t be with them for a while. They asked me what “a while” meant but I couldn’t give them an answer. “It might be weeks,” I said, knowing it would probably be longer. I hugged them, aware that I probably shouldn’t, but with no certainty of when the next time might be. With very little certainty about anything. We agreed that I’d cook for myself in the kitchenette. In any case, I didn’t know when I’d be coming or going.

There turned out to be very little of either. The hospital shifts were extended, sometimes running into each other, sometimes lasting days. When I did come home to the flatlet, it was usually just for a few hours, to shower and get some sleep. It reminded me what it was like to have a baby in the house, and to survive on a few hours of sleep every night, and I was again surprised at how we manage to cope. Except, of course, coping isn’t much more than surviving. We’re not at our best; not physically, not intellectually and not emotionally. At the hospital, we were all just fuelled by the pauseless attention that one patient after another needed and the decisions, the life or death decisions, that we needed to make. There were seldom lunch or tea breaks; sandwiches and bad hospital coffees were consumed in the passages.

Sometimes, arriving at the flatlet in the early hours, I’d be too wired to fall asleep; sometimes I fell asleep so quickly I didn’t remember lying down; a few times I sobbed on the bed and fell asleep more from the exhaustion of crying than working. I’d set the alarm but usually woke up before it went offand couldn’t get back to sleep.

We were quickly short on doctors and nurses; some had tested positive. Patient numbers grew, staff numbers shrank. That was likely to be the pattern. None of us knew how we would cope, or if we would. The hospital, the patients, the disease, consumed everything. While some people on the outside complained they had too much time on their hands, I didn’t have enough to read the news or watch TV. I didn’t make small talk with the staff; there was nothing else happening in our lives, nothing else to talk about.

It became unsafe and impractical for me to leave the hospital. I told Julia that I wouldn’t be able to come back until the worst was over. In effect very little changed; I hadn’t been at the flatlet for days anyway, and my decision just put some clarity and formality to what was already happening. 

In my younger naivety, I used to think that people became addicts only in their 20s or 30s. That’s when they experiment, I believed. That’s when they’re unconcerned with their mortality. And that’s when they’re likely to get sucked down the sinkhole of abuse. Not in their 40s. In any case, I’d never felt drawn to heavy use. I’d also never felt this degree of exhaustion, and under the circumstances, a mild stimulant would serve me and my patients. So I took one. Then I took one a day. And then two a day became two twice a day.

But then I stopped being able to sleep altogether. I’d lie there, with thoughts and scenarios and decisions and prescriptions and diagnoses and information and graphs swirling through my head all night long. I developed a twitch and my vision became blurred. I was restless and agitated, I was drinking more coffee, I was doing everything faster.

I tried to speak with Julia and the kids every day but often it was only in the early hours of the morning that I could find five minutes so I missed them. One night I got Julia just after nine, as she was going to sleep. She sounded calm, started telling me how she’d sat in the garden for an hour earlier in the evening, just sat, listening to the quiet, not looking at her phone or thinking about emails. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that; maybe it was 20 years ago, she said. Why don’t we do that, she asked. But, still speeding and beckoned by the endless rush hour of the hospital and the ward, I was as impatient as she was content. I cut her short and said I had to go.

Some of the nurses seemed to notice my edginess and showed some compassion. Katy tried. She asked if everything was okay, but I snapped at her. 

“Obviously everything isn’t okay.” 

I apologised. I knew her intentions were good. But instead of laying off the pills, I found others. The anti-anxieties made me floaty. I was a calmer version of manic. Or a manic version of calm. At any rate, I felt I was doing better with both self-medications than I would be without either.

For the first time in days, I started getting a couple of hours of sleep at night. I became less emotionally attached and affected. I wasn’t panicked anymore. Not like the nurses. They were scared. And I felt relieved not to be. On that level, at least, I believed I was being a better doctor.

Medically, I probably wasn’t. I started to drift off and daydream, the way you do on a long drive when you suddenly refocus on the road ahead of you and wonder how you got there, or you try to remember what the landscape was for last few minutes and can’t. In the hospital, it felt like it was just for moments at a time, but one day I was standing over a patient in cardiac arrest.

I heard a concerned and urgent voice ask, “are you with me, Doctor Wu?” But I just kept staring somewhere distant. “Alex!” the same voice shouted. It was Katy, breaking my daze and the unspoken convention of nurses addressing doctors by their title. 

Later that night I told myself that the patient would almost certainly not have survived anyway. It wasn’t a thought that the young, hopeful, idealistic me would have entertained. It was the thought of a shadow of the man that I once knew, half a lifetime ago.

My judgement as a doctor had become clouded. But, worse, it had become objective. Decisions were made according to a process of weighing up who was more likely to live and who was more likely to die based on the information and data I had. In one way that is as it should be; nothing much wrong with it, other than that sympathy was absent from it. There was no getting to know the patient; no effort to, no intent to, no desire to. It was all utility, no humanity.

I laid off the stimulants for the next few days, but doubled down on the sedatives. It could have gone the other way. It was one decision that was not objective. A gamble taken for no reason that I could or cared to fathom. 

I can’t recall much about those next few days. I can’t recall if I gave better care or made better decisions. Even now I don’t know what “better” was or how it would have been measured in those times. I do recall another doctor telling me that Katy, previously my ally, perhaps at that point even more my ally, had spoken with my superior out of concern for the patients. I believe she was concerned for me, too.

But nothing came of her conversation. Before it could, I started getting symptoms and tested positive. Saved by the virus, I thought, indifferent to the irony. I left the hospital with enough meds to last me through 14 days of quarantine.

My symptoms were mild. At least, those from the virus were. But those from my time at the hospital and my ongoing abuse were more severe. I hadn’t been to the flatlet in a month. I hadn’t seen Rose or Cole in nearly two. Still, I could hardly get myself out of bed or to the door. I told them it was because I was sick and weak, and that was how I felt, though not in the way they understood. I slept for 10 or 11 hours every night and for much of the day. Julia left food at the door like I was incarcerated. I usually ate a few mouthfuls and left the rest.

When I moved back into the house, Rose and Cole had made cards and posters for me. They said “Welcome home daddy!” and “We missed you!” They gave me tight, prolonged hugs; I hugged them back, tighter and longer. They patiently let each other take turns to catch me up on the highlights of their lives that I’d missed. Julia made the lasagne I love so much and we ate as a family. It felt so foreign, and so familiar. We let the kids stay up late and I read them three stories. Held them close. Kissed them good night. Wiped tears from my cheeks.

Julia made me a cup of tea and we sat outside together. We listened to the quiet, didn’t say anything. She put her hand on mine. And then I sobbed, like I had at the hospital in those early weeks, scared and sad, but unlike those early weeks, now also sorry and shameful. She let me cry, didn’t ask any questions or expect any explanation. 

I don’t think she knew and I didn’t tell her about the drugs. I stopped taking them, abruptly and, to my surprise, easily.

I had to make a decision about returning to the hospital. Even though the staff who’d got sick before me had returned, more had got ill since. They still needed doctors. But I didn’t want to go back. Saving lives wasn’t the experience I imagined as a student, or as a professional. Maybe that’s true for everyone who worked at any hospital in those times.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” the senior doctor said. He thanked me graciously and wished me well. I asked him to tell Katy that I said thank you and sorry.

I stayed home for a month after that. I spent a lot of time with Rose and Cole, and just watching them. Julia told me about friends who were volunteering for charities and starting new ones, businesses that were helping, ideas people were having, optimism they were feeling. I caught up with news and the stupidity and sincerity of leaders. I caught up with friends and family. Vacuumed floors and washed dishes. Cooked dinners. Read books. Went to bed early and woke up late. Slept deeply and dreamed vividly. 

My practice started up again slowly. Rose and Cole eventually went back to school. And in time things looked, from the outside, much as they must have before. If you’d asked me, the only visible difference to our lives that I might have been able to identify was that Julia and I sat outside most nights, even the cold ones, even just for a few minutes, listening to the not quite quiet that she described the night I called her before she went to bed.

But we’d lived through the worst and best of times, and shown the worst and best of ourselves. We’d been selfish and kind, felt fear and hope, seen grief and rebirth. And things were different; they couldn’t not be different. And we did all change. Not in ways others could see, not even in ways we could articulate, but in ways that we carried with us afterward.


Johnny B. Goode’s Last Dance

June 1, 2020

On Monday, April 20th, Johnny B. Goode, armed with a handful of co-conspirators, crowbars and a small arsenal of rocks and stones, drove to a now quiet arterial road, barricaded it, and waited. They didn’t have to wait long, and when the truck came, they pelted it with stones. The windscreen cracked in several places and one rock penetrated the driver’s door window, injuring and terrifying the driver. They cranked the back doors of the truck open and found exactly what they were expecting: food. 

Jonny’s mother, Sarah, was to be displeased. Johnny had had a naughty streak since he was a young boy, and she’d often said to him, “Johnny, be good!” The name stuck, and as a still-naughty adolescent he’d started signing his name Johnny B. Goode, which was not so far from his real name, Jonathan Branford Gordon, especially as a signature. As an adult he started introducing himself as Johnny B. Goode, also to the displeasure of his mother, who still told him to be good.

But he was not exactly bad. When he got into his first fight and knocked a boy to the ground, he held his arm out to help the boy up. They became friends after that. Also, in the absence of a father, Johnny was a caring son, helping his mother around the house, going with her to church and, later, supporting her financially whenever he could.

She needed supporting. She had fallen pregnant with Johnny when she was 17 and never finished school. The father disappeared almost as soon as he realised Sarah was pregnant; Johnny never met him and Sarah never heard from him again. She stayed with her parents for a few years until her father kicked her out; after that she lived on occasional casual work and charity. 

Johnny also did odd jobs, even as a child. Sarah never discouraged it, so he was never in school consistently and never learned to read or write well. When he was 14 he was recruited into a gang, but with questionable success. Despite his naughty character and some attraction to the lifestyle, being witness to shootings in the streets from early childhood had nurtured some misgivings on his part. He would drift closer to the gravity of the gang world at times, then push away again. He’d do some “dances” – deliver drugs, hold up a store, steal a car or some other misdemeanour or crime of varying severity – then retreat. As his teenage years progressed, some of his friends from the gangs were injured and arrested – something that he managed to avoid. But during those ebbs and flows, he learned a useful thing or two. How to pick locks and victims; how to take desperate measures in desperate times.

And these were desperate times. Johnny had recently found work on a construction site. He was outdoors, enjoying camaraderie, learning a skill and earning a small but steady income. After months of dependable employment, the site closed with three days’ warning and no guarantee. The other workers speculated that it would be a few weeks, but two of those few weeks in, it was clear it would go on longer. Maybe months.

Confined to home, Johnny’s options were limited. He couldn’t go out and look for work. In any case, it wasn’t there. He and his mother had been living week to week as it was, and his last week at work had been a short one. They were down to two meals a day and enough money to buy bread and milk for another week. The neighbours who could help did – some were going to be paid until the end of the month, one or two for longer – but most were in the same situation, and those few in the community who were still earning couldn’t support everyone. 

In more comfortable suburbs, neighbours were also doing nice things for each other. Baking things. Making things. Cupcakes. Candles. These were the suburbs that could afford to be robbed – they had insurance, after all – and which one could therefore justify robbing. There was a kind of Robin Hood mentality in the gangs: at least, their narrative was that people weren’t picked on indiscriminately; the rich were robbed to pay the poor. But now the merry men of the gangs were quiet, under strict lockdown like everyone else and, for the most part, to some people’s surprise, obediently so – more fearful, presumably, of being caught by the virus than the law. Criminals need to earn a living, too; at the end of every year, break-ins increase (thieves want a Christmas bonus just like everyone else); but this was not a time for incentives, it was a time for safety, even in places where life ordinarily seemed to be cheaper and rules more freely disregarded.

For the first few weeks, things were calm. But after that, disquiet began. First within households. Then with neighbours across their rusty fences. A few, ashamed but despairing, called old employers, sometimes from a decade back or more. The kinder ones would deposit enough for the family to get by for a week, and then there was no one left to call on. In one house, down the road from Sarah’s, a three month old baby screamed throughout the night from hunger. In another, an elderly woman had run out of her medication and couldn’t afford to buy more; her neighbours could hear her moaning in pain in the night, too.

So when Johnny first had the idea to hold up a truck, it wasn’t just born out of boredom, and he wasn’t only thinking of himself and his mother. He felt his crime could be godfatherly. He wouldn’t be wantonly looting bottle stores like he’d seen people doing on the news. He’d be providing relief to hundreds who needed it, to people who’d watched him growing up, who’d acted as his uncles and aunts and guardians. He would be doing this for them; a heroic act of generosity and gratitude. 

The idea quickly grew into a resolution. And the few friends he recruited to dance needed little encouragement. They just wanted something to do, something other than being at home. Something illegal would be all the better, and something they could say was benevolent was an added bonus. Johnny and his four accomplices convinced themselves that police were too busy enforcing regulations to respond to something like this, especially if it were carried out efficiently. They agreed on a day. They all had crowbars in their homes. It took fifteen minutes to gather stones near the road and place rocks in it. And before the truck came to a proper stop ahead of their barricade, they’d cracked its windscreen. Two of them pelted the truck while Johnny and two others went to the back and worked on the doors. They were experienced and ruthless and broke the lock in seconds. Navigating their way inside was harder; the truck had been packed efficiently, from years of corporate planning and experience, and no space was unused. 

They began tossing food out. Whatever was there, they threw. Loaves of bread. Potato chips. Crackers. They made headway slowly. Oil. Tea. The driver had been forced out of the front and sat on the ground on the side of the road, nursing his injured head. Meanwhile, none of this had been kept secret. Delinquents enjoyed the attention and notoriety and each of Johnny’s crew members had told a few others of their plans. Within five minutes, a crowd had gathered, swarming together at the back of the truck, receiving whatever was offloaded and passing it to others. By the time the police arrived, there were more than 50 people zealously closing in on the truck, disregarding social distancing, gleefully accepting what came out of it. They dispersed in seconds, all carrying some reward for their troubles. 

But for Johnny and his four fellow fiends, who were halfway into the cavernous container, there was no escape. They accepted their fate. Their crowbars were no match for firearms. And besides, they were in it for fun, not for violence. They were cuffed, put into the back of two vans and taken to the nearest police station, where they made themselves as comfortable as they could in the holding cell, along with two other men who were there for other reasons, while the police tried to figure out what to do with them.

Sarah did not get any food out of the expedition. Nor did she benefit in any way. Her son was released late that evening, only because someone higher up the ladder in the police department had finally determined and instructed that social distancing regulations could not be enforced in a cell, and he came home with a charge sheet that included assault, damage to property and robbery. He would almost certainly be found guilty in court, having been caught in the act and there being a credible witness, the truck driver. 

“Johnny,” Sarah cried. “Why can’t you be good? Why must you be the leader of a big old band of… what? Bandits!”

It would be the first and last time Johnny was caught. He would learn his lesson, and learn it the hard way. He now saw that it wasn’t worth the risk. His intentions were good, he told himself, but his execution was flawed. It may have been different if he’d been able to get his mother some food, and if he’d avoided being arrested. But now he faced a few years in prison. And the only reason he wasn’t behind bars right now was because of the disease. 

Though neither he nor Sarah mentioned it, both naturally wondered if he had come home with more than a charge sheet. About a week after the failed food hijacking, Henry, one of the four accomplices, called Johnny and told him his father was showing symptoms.

“So they got to test us all,” Henry said.

“Who all?” Johnny asked.

“All of us. My family. You, the others, your families.”

Johnny tested positive but was asymptomatic. Sarah also tested positive and was terrified. For days she waited for her headache to get worse. She monitored every move for pain. Every little cough was a sign of worse to come. But worse didn’t come, and within a week she was feeling emboldened. She had survived what felt to her like her closest shave with death, even though she’d lived her entire life in ganglands and seen children being caught in crossfire.

Henry tested positive, too. So did his mother and two brothers. Of the five who held up the truck, only one, Angelo, was negative. Over the next few weeks, dozens of households in the neighbourhood had people with symptoms and positive results. Most of them were living at least two people to a room; isolation was almost impossible in their small houses and, in any case, it was too late.

Speculation began to rise about the truck incident and the crowd that had gathered, and whether that might have been the event that incited the spread. More and more people got sick. Then one died. As the neighbourhood became more spooked, its need for a scapegoat became more acute. Everyone knew who the five were, and the other four desperately deflected ultimate responsibility to Johnny. They were participants, yes, but Johnny was the ringleader, the brains. The dance was his idea. He was the epicentre of the event that was the epicentre of the outbreak.

One night Johnny and Sarah were woken by the sound of broken glass. One pane was shattered, then another. One by one, every window in the house had a rock thrown through it. The perpetrator or perpetrators were methodical, moving around the house in a clockwise direction. One stone hit Sarah, who was too dazed to know that it was better to lie under her blankets than to get up. When the smashing was done, Johnny ran to his hysterical mother, nursed her bleeding ear, and held her until the morning when it got light.

“Sarah! Sarah, you alright?” a woman’s voice shouted from outside. It was their neighbour, standing at the front gate. Sarah gingerly opened the door to a small crowd who’d gathered. They were looking not at Sarah, but at the wall next to the front door. Sarah walked outside and turned around. Written across the wall in messy black spray paint, she saw: “You did this!”

Johnny cleaned inside the house and covered the windows with board and planks of wood from the back yard among a pile of things a father might have insisted on keeping because “we might find a use for it one day”. The only source of light was through thin strips between the planks, and so the house felt like it was in late dusk all day long. Lights had to be kept on and the electricity would cost more, though they had no way of paying for it, so it would quite possibly be cut off sooner or later. Even now, local government departments and their employees were inconsistent, blindly obedient to instructions from other times, thoughtless, and inadvertently heartless. 

Johnny decided his best tactic was to wait things out, and he took a safety first approach, holing up inside the house. Every few days, at different times of the day or night, there’d be a snap or bang as a stone hit one of the boards, and he and Sarah would sit, motionless and anxious, waiting for worse to come. They sustained themselves on small gifts of food from neighbours who appreciated that they had benefitted from the heist, who were sensitive to the risk Johnny took and would certainly pay for. Most of the community felt this way, but their compassion was passive. With small and occasional acts of vandalism, the aggressor or aggressors sustained a climate of fear in which even Johnny and Sarah’s sympathisers might be punished.

After 10 days of rising guilt and increasing hunger, Johnny realised he could not win this cold standoff by waiting it out. A few hours after curfew he put on a black hoody, black trousers and black sneakers, and slipped out of the back door. His plan was to get to Sarah’s parents. No pillar of affection, Ray had shown little interest in his daughter or grandson. He seemed to regard Sarah and Johnny’s one or two visits a year with suspicion. “What do you need now?”, he’d ask. And this time, he’d be right. Violet, Johnny’s grandmother, was not hostile, but did nothing to encourage a relationship.

They lived about 10 kilometres away. The first 15 minutes of Johnny’s expedition were tense. He kept looking around, half expecting to be stabbed. When he knew he was a good distance away from his neighbourhood, his worries turned to the police. Upcountry, a security guard, ill-equipped to deal with a situation he was employed for, had shot a man in the face. Johnny hoped that police were better trained and briefed than private security guards, and that they might show some concern if he were caught. But he preferred not to get caught. He crouched behind walls and fences, looked right and left and right again before emerging into every open space or crossing a road. He walked swiftly but, hungry and weak, didn’t have the energy to run.

It was after midnight when he got to his grandparents’ house. There was no flicker of a TV and only an outside light was on. He knocked on the door, gently at first, then more firmly, and then finally with force.

“What the-” Ray said, opening the door.

“Grampa,” Johnny said, pushing his way past and sitting down in the dark kitchen.

“Why are you here?” Ray demanded. “We’re old! I’m diabetic! Your grandmother has blood pressure! We’re trying to keep to ourselves, and you barge in, probably with the virus!”

“I don’t have it,” Johnny answered. “I mean, I did, but not anymore.”

Ray pointed to the door. “Get out!”

“Granny Violet,” Johnny said to his grandmother, who had just appeared in the doorway.

“The boy’s in a state,” Violet said, apparently not directed to either one of them.

Johnny told them what had happened. “We not safe. And we got nothing to eat. We can’t stay there.”

“Your mother is useless, and she raised a criminal,” Ray said. “Sleep on the couch.”

Johnny didn’t sleep. And in the morning the hostility continued.

“Why don’t you get the police involved instead of us!”

“Grampa, please, just let me use your car, I’ll go fetch her.”

“What? Have you even got a license!”

Violet didn’t say a word. She made Johnny two fried eggs on toast for breakfast, then two more. He could have eaten double that.

That evening, just before the sun was setting, they all got into the car. Ray told Violet to stay home but she simply installed herself in the passenger seat. When they got to the house, Sarah wasn’t there. Johnny went next door, where their neighbour told him Sarah had been worried when he wasn’t home and that she’d been out looking for him since the afternoon. A network of calls ensued and half an hour later Sarah’s whereabouts were established. They got into the car and drove to where she was.

“Daddy,” she said, surprised and anxious to see her father.

“Come, mommy,” Johnny said. “We going to their house. It’s safe there.”

“Safe for who?” Ray asked.

Johnny’s stress had heightened progressively since they got to the neighbourhood. He’d expected it to take five minutes to fetch Sarah and some clothes; it was now three quarters of an hour.

“Mommy, get in the car!” He urged her.

“You okay?” Ray asked Violet, who was quieter than normal, and paler. She breathed slowly and nodded her head unconvincingly.

“Grampa, you got to go! Fast!”

Ray started driving off at an irrationally civilised speed. He had always adhered strictly to conventional ethics and the law, which seemed to be a stronger instinct for him than survival. It was only when they heard a gunshot that flight mode took hold, and he floored the accelerator. Two more gunshots were fired as the car sped away through the narrow street, its occupants terrified to a breathless silence. 

A couple of minutes later they were out of the neighbourhood and on the arterial road that Johnny had held the truck up on. Ray was still speeding and clenching the wheel so hard his knuckles were white. The cabin was still quiet. Johnny looked out of the back window to see if anyone was pursuing them. No one was.

“Everyone alright?” he asked, turning to the front. 

No one said a word. Ray kept driving. Violet let out a deep breath. Johnny turned to his side, where his mother was leaning toward him, slouched low in the seat, Johnny assumed in a self-protective gesture to avoid the bullets. After all those stones through their windows, she was learning, he thought.

“Mommy, you can sit up. I think we okay.”

Sarah’s eyes were open and unresponsive. In shock, or fear, Johnny thought.

“Mommy”, he said again, putting his hand under her shoulder to help her up. He felt something warm over his fingers. Withdrew them, looked at them, saw red on them. Put them back under the side of his mother’s head. More warmth. He pushed her head up, smudging blood over the upholstery. The ear that had been hit by a stone that night of broken glass was hanging from a small piece of flesh just above the lobe.

He looked hard at her for a sign of something; a blink, a swallow, a breath. He saw nothing.

“Grampa,” Johnny said. “We got to go to the hospital.”



Eleanor Rigby’s Window

May 10, 2020

Eleanor Rigby waits at the window. No one has passed yet today, and it’s already after 11. Perhaps she missed someone when she was in the kitchen or the bathroom. But the block of flats is in a quiet road; even in normal times it can be hours between pedestrians. Cars don’t count because she’s on the fourth floor; too high to be able to see the drivers. So she has to content herself watching branches in the breeze and bees and butterflies and birds, which, she’s sure, there are more of. Not just in number but in variety. She’s read that some have come to cities because of the quietness. Sadly, this probably won’t last; they will go away when normal life and traffic return.

She’s also read about people saying things will never be the same again, but she has her doubts. Humans are lazy, and they’ll go back to doing things the way they did before. Driving. Drinking. Consuming. If things do change, she thinks, it will be forced on us because we’re out of work and can’t afford to do what we used to. But even that is temporary. Economies bounce back eventually. Maybe the protracted nature of this thing will help. If it really is going to be a year or more, as people say, maybe we’ll get used to living our lives differently, and maybe we’ll come out the other side changed in ways we don’t realise. But, Eleanor expects, the more likely outcome is that we’ll revert to type, unless we make a deliberate decision not to. All of us, together. And each one of us, alone.

This is something else she’s read a lot: alone together. For her, the together part only applies in a general way; we are all going through this. But Eleanor has nobody to be alone together with. No family, no friends, no one to call or message.

Her parents have both passed on and, like her, both were only children, so she had no aunts or uncles or cousins. It’s been nearly 20 years since Frank died. They were both introverts, never a very sociable couple, and the small circle of friends they did have has drifted apart and moved away to other cities and countries.

Her company is – or, until recently, was – made up of brief encounters with familiar people. The bus driver. Isabel from the flower shop. Kareem from the corner shop. Their conversations were simple. Sometimes just a smile and a thanks, sometimes hello and how are you, sometimes the weather. That was enough for Eleanor. 

But now she isn’t taking the bus or buying flowers. Even Kareem has closed his shop. She doesn’t know why. He sells bread and vegetables and pet food; he could be open, but he isn’t. She wonders, doesn’t he need to make a living? One of the few that is allowed to, but he isn’t. Eleanor imagines that maybe his mother is sick and he is looking after her. Or maybe he is sick. Or scared. She thinks of him a few times a day. And when she has to go out to get food, she walks past his shop hoping to see it open and him behind the counter, but that never happens, so she has to go to the supermarket a few roads down. She feels anxious being in a place with so many people, and they all probably feel the same. They can hardly manage a smile, and even if they could, you wouldn’t be able to see it behind their masks. The cashiers try to be friendly but Eleanor can see their fear.

Just after midday a young woman walks past. In her early 20s, Eleanor thinks from her window. About the same age she was when she met Frank. The woman has long brown hair, which she flicks behind her shoulders, causing her to look up momentarily in Eleanor’s direction. Eleanor does what she does whenever someone walks past. She plays a scene out in her imagination: The woman smiles. Eleanor smiles back. The woman waves. Eleanor waves back. Opens the window. Shouts hello. The woman says hello back. Eleanor says wouldn’t you like to come up for a cup of tea? The woman looks around her, crosses the road. Eleanor says to buzz flat 402. The woman is taller than she looks from a distance, but more fragile. She comes in, Eleanor boils the kettle and makes some tea. I have a young child, the woman says. Three years old. I could bring her with me but, I don’t know, I feel safer leaving her home. I have to ask my neighbour to look after her for an hour. Who knows if my neighbour has it or not. I don’t even know her that well. You could bring your daughter here, Eleanor says. I don’t know you at all, the woman says. That’s true, Eleanor says. Where’s the father, Eleanor asks. Stuck in Japan. He went there for work and can’t get back… 

Eleanor can’t take the conversation anywhere after that. It’s a not very satisfying ending to the story, but that is just how her fantasies go. Some are significant, some superficial. Some last an afternoon, some are short and abruptly concluded. They have ended with friendships, sex, assault. Not yet with death.

In real life, she could die and nobody would know. She could trip and hit her head on the bath, for example. How long would it take for the neighbours to smell? She has no idea. Who would arrange the funeral? Who would attend? What would the tombstone say? Eleanor Rigby (born Stapleton), deeply mourned by… who? That’s what Frank’s tombstone says: Frank Rigby, deeply mourned by his wife, Eleanor. He was also the only child of two only children, so Eleanor is the last of the Rigbys. When she dies, she will be buried along with the name. 

Frank died young, just short of his 50th birthday, before Eleanor even wondered who would die first or imagined what life without him might look like. It was difficult at first, but she got used to it, and has grown content being on her own. The thought of meeting new people, and making conversation… it’s not for her. We are all different creatures, she feels, and this is who I am, and I am okay with that. Of course, she also never imagined this happening. She is accustomed to being alone; knows how to be alone; but now she feels unusually alone. She looks out the window again. The street is empty.

Later in the week, Eleanor gets up from her chair at the window and goes out. She hopes Kareem’s shop will be open this time but is not surprised when it isn’t. She takes the envelope out of her handbag and crouches down with difficulty to slide it under the door. The letter is short. It says Dear Kareem (she doesn’t even know if that is how he spells his name), I just wanted to know how you’re doing. I thought you would keep your shop open. I hope everything is okay. Kind regards, Mrs. Rigby (Eleanor). Kareem is too polite to call her by her first name, though she has told him to before. He always calls her Mrs. Rigby or, occasionally, when he is feeling jovial and open, Mrs. R.

Eleanor strains to get up. It is more difficult than it was crouching down, and she looks around to see if anybody is watching her struggling. She fixes her face mask, walks the extra few blocks to the supermarket, buys enough so she won’t have to go again for a few days, but not so much that it will need more than a packet or two, which she would not be able to carry. Bread, eggs, milk, tea, some fruit and vegetables, a few frozen meals. 

Back home, she boils the kettle, makes herself tea and goes to drink it at the window. Two youths – maybe seventeen or eighteen – walk down the middle of the street shoving each other and laughing. Both of them have shaved heads. Neither of them is wearing masks. Eleanor plays out the scene: She opens her window and tells the boys to be careful, to go home. They look up, snigger. They take a few pebbles from the pavement and pelt them at her. One just misses the window. They mock her: Be careful! Go home! and walk off, laughing louder…

The next morning, from the same chair, Eleanor looks around her flat. Her vase is empty, for the first time in years. The last flowers she bought from Isabel were tulips, and she kept them until they were wilted and turning brown. She imagines Isabel’s house, also flowerless. She imagines Kareem’s house, also flowerless. She wonders if Kareem has been to the shop, even just to check it. Maybe he has sent someone else. Probably not. It’s been closed for weeks; why would it be different today? But then again, why wouldn’t it be? If she could just know that he’s okay, she would feel better. Would it be silly to call him? Could she even call him? Shops normally have an emergency number somewhere on the front door, but she’s never thought to look if Kareem’s does. Next time she goes out she’ll check, she thinks. But why shouldn’t that be today, she thinks? She could take a bag and pretend she was going shopping. She looks out of the window, as if that might influence her decision: maybe if someone passes by she might be distracted or dissuaded. But nobody does. She gets up, walks to the front door, goes back to the kitchen to get a shopping bag, leaves.

She wonders if she is being inappropriate. If she is interfering. No, she is just caring. Nothing wrong with that. But might it be misconstrued for more? Kareem must be a similar age to Eleanor. What if he has a wife? She knows nothing about his family; doesn’t even know if he has a family. She has thought to ask, but it always felt awkward. 

There is no number on the door, or anywhere else that she can see. There is a sign for a security company. That makes sense. It’s not the 20th century. In case of emergency, there would be an alarm, and the security company would be notified automatically.

She walks back home, feeling sheepish and silly. But that doesn’t stop her from taking out her pad and writing another short letter. Dear Kareem, I hope you don’t think I’m as silly as I feel writing this, but I realised there is no way for you to let me know if you’re okay. So I’m writing again to leave you my number. I’d be so grateful if you’d just call me to tell me everything’s alright. She signs her name and writes out her number, folds the letter and puts it in an envelope. But she resolves to only deliver it next time she actually has to go shopping. Perhaps by then his shop will be open again and she won’t have to embarrass herself.

She hears a man coughing in the street below. She looks out of the window and plays out the scene: The man’s coughing becomes worse. He doubles over. Puts his hands on his knees. Wobbles. Eleanor opens the window, calls to him: are you okay? He looks up, waves as if to say it’s all fine, but it’s not. He attempts to take long breaths but can’t because of the coughing. She tells him to come up to her flat so he can take a break and recover, but he shakes his head. He gathers himself, shouts thank you, thank you very much, I’ll be okay…

A few days later, she knows it’s not essential to go out but her milk is half finished. Never mind that she has a few cartons of long-life. At Kareem’s, she sees her envelope still where it was when she was here last. She slips the second envelope under the door. As she gets up, a woman almost walks into her. She is not wearing a mask.

“Damn, he’s closed,” the woman says. “I’ll have to go to the supermarket,” she sighs in Eleanor’s direction. “I can’t wait until the end of the month when this lockdown is over.” 

Eleanor has noticed that the penny seems to drop at different rates for different people. Things are not going to return to normal at the end of the month, she wants to tell the woman. But then, Eleanor was taking the bus a few weeks ago, not washing hands any more than usual, even when others were starting to stay home. Maybe people only process what they can cope with. Maybe it’s just hard to defer dreams, hopes and plans. She thinks of the holiday she wants – wanted – to take in July. She hasn’t been to Spain, has always wanted to go, and now probably never will.

She walks back to her flat, already preparing the next letter, but she can’t think what she might say.

The next day her phone rings. It must be Kareem, she thinks. Nobody ever phones her. But it’s a wrong number. Somebody with a foreign accent. She is next to the window. On the table to her side, her writing pad is still out and the page is still blank. She starts to write: Dear Kareem, My phone just rang and I thought it was you, replying to my last letter. I dropped it off yesterday when I came past, hoping you’d be open. But you weren’t. It was so disappointing. Instead I had to go to the supermarket, which I dislike. So many people. I just feel like seeing a familiar face; a smile. Anyway, maybe one day we’ll laugh at these letters I wrote you. Kind Regards, Eleanor.

She reads it, cringes a little, resolves not to give it to him. But later in the week she still hasn’t crumpled it or thrown it away. She has folded it neatly and put it in an envelope. She remembers when she was sixteen and wrote to a boy and sprayed the envelope with perfume, but she doesn’t do that now. Now she only sprays a little on her neck.

She is standing outside Kareem’s shop with the envelope in her hand, looking at the two envelopes on the other side of the door, when the same woman as last time walks around the corner, still not wearing a mask. She walks right up to Eleanor.

“Did you hear what happened to him,” she says.

“You mean Kareem?”

“Terrible business. Our local WhatsApp group was talking about it.”

“About what?”

“They say he got beaten up. While he was on his way to the shop. Two young thugs, apparently. Kicked the shit out of him. He had to go to hospital.”

“Oh my goodness. Is he okay?”

“That’s the worst part. He got sick there. Sicker. Because of all this, probably.” She waves her hand around theatrically in no particular direction. “Anyway, that’s what the WhatsApp group said.” The woman sighs in Eleanor’s direction again. “Who knows if he’ll be okay.”


“Stay safe!” the woman commands.

Eleanor stands at the door, wondering how much is rumour and how much is truth. Did he really go to hospital? Which one? What difference would it make; she wouldn’t be able to go anyway. She slides the third letter under the door and walks slowly home.

For the next few days, Eleanor spends much of her time at the window. She has a book open but has hardly read a chapter. She has played out a few unimaginative scenes involving passers-by – a woman on a bicycle, an elderly couple walking arm in arm, a man carrying a drill. 

Early on Monday a man walks past. He is grey like Kareem, but has a bald spot at the top that she has never noticed Kareem having. He is also slighter, gaunter, and walks with a stick. Is it him? Eleanor watches carefully. The man lifts his head slightly, and she plays out a scene in her imagination: Kareem? she calls. He smiles, waves. Kareem! she shouts. Mrs. R! he calls back. How are you? she asks, I heard you- Yes, yes, he nods. But I’m getting there. Better every day. I’m opening the shop again today! Eleanor feels a warmth and happiness of spirit that she hasn’t felt for months. Maybe years. Wonderful! she calls. Oh, please ignore the letters, throw them away! Letters? he asks. She feels herself blush but she doesn’t care. Never mind! She calls. I’ll see you at the shop! Yes, see you soon! He waves.

Eleanor watches the man walk to the end of the road and turn right, out of sight.




The Abridged Life and Times of Major Tom

April 10, 2020

Major Benjamin Balthazar Heraldo Ignatius Tom checked into hospital on March 28th. For a week he’d had a dry cough, slight fever, lack of energy and, over the last few days, some difficulty breathing. For a while longer than that – a few years, perhaps, by his observation – he’d also suffered from a somewhat scattered mind; not confused, exactly, but lacking in clarity; and that had made it hard for him to know what to do, especially with so much information – so much uncertain information – and so many opinions going around. It was difficult to gauge what was fact and what was fake, and he was caught between a sense of civic duty not to add pressure to the health system, and not wanting to imperil himself through inaction. Eventually Tessa, his desperate wife, got him into the car and drove him to hospital, where she was told by hospital staff to go home.

As requested by the admittance forms, he obediently wrote out, in full, his four first names, which had been piecemealed together by his parents between his conception and birth out of references to minor celebrities and obscure artists. In his professional days in the military he had, of course, been Major Tom, which quickly became an old joke and which he felt undermined his position and the respect it should have demanded. But to his friends he’d always just been Tom. His title was still “Major”, though, and that is what he always wrote out on forms (where it was never offered as an option he could simply tick or underline, like “Dr” or “Mr”).

Hospital protocol demanded that he be accordingly addressed as Major Tom. The nurses, despite their stress, or perhaps because of it, delighted in it; they got a kick out of “hello, Major Tom” and ” how are you feeling, Major Tom?” On his first evening in the hospital, at dinner time, he had to be roused from a sleep, and he woke up to a nurse softy nudging his shoulder, saying “Ground control to Major Tom,” which stuck, and which all the nurses started using as a standard greeting.

On the second morning he was moved to intensive care and given oxygen. His test results hadn’t come back yet but his condition had worsened and the doctor felt his symptoms were sufficient, and sufficiently severe, to assume he had the disease. 

The hospital, Tom thought, seemed to be in a state of limbo, or purgatory. The ward was almost but not quite full. The staff seemed to be on edge, anticipating something that hadn’t yet come. 

He felt he, too, was entering a kind of in-between state that he’d seen his grandfather in years before: after several days recovering in hospital, his Pappi had no idea if it were day or night. Already, Tom struggled to remember what day of the week it was, though perhaps that was just an extension of having been home under lockdown for a week. At times, the scene around him seemed to become a blur of white, pale blue and silver. Voices were indistinct, mixed with the beeps and breaths of medical equipment around him. 

Late in the day, amidst this haze, he felt himself floating in a most peculiar way, and in a half-dream he recalled with fondness the poster he’d had on his wall when he was sixteen, of David Bowie as an astronaut. He’d spent many hours listening to Space Oddity and looking at that poster and, though he never made it into space, Tom felt that the poster had somehow guided or at least accompanied him through the course of his life. He had wanted to be an artist (he’d drawn his own versions of that poster), a writer, a philosopher. But he’d been conscripted into the army after school and, somehow, never left. It wasn’t that he’d wanted to be a soldier, but he was good at it, and he sensed the structure was healthy for him: he’d worried he might otherwise become a deadbeat or a junkie, and at difficult times he’d thought of the poster and it had somehow made him feel better, as if he were in space, unconstrained, un-suffocated, able to breath.

“Ground control to Major Tom?” he heard a woman ask. When he opened his eyes a nurse was looking at him softly. 

“We need to put you on a ventilator.”

“Has my wife been to visit me?” Tom asked a nurse the next day, wondering if Tessa might have come while he was sleeping.

“She’s not allowed to. I’m sorry. It’s not safe.”

Tom mourned, for himself and for Tessa. In normal circumstances, he considered, loved ones are there at bedsides, but these are not normal circumstances. In a moment of acute pain and fear he sobbed, audibly, abruptly, once only, then lay in silence, picturing Tessa at home, on her own, sitting in a chair, thinking of him, feeling the same helplessness.

They had saved each other. More than once.

In 1982, on a weekend pass, Tom had paid Tessa for sex. But afterward they had kept talking until the morning. By sunrise, they knew they would stay together.

“Could you be with a prostitute?” she’d asked him.

“I can be with someone who has been a prostitute, but I won’t have you sleeping with other people if you’re mine.”

“Then I’ll stop.”

“Could you be with a drug addict?”

“Are you one?”

“I think maybe I am becoming one.”

“What drugs?”

“Marijuana, LSD, mescaline. But I feel like I would try anything.”

“I can’t be with you if you are using drugs.”

“Then I’ll stop.”

And he did. And she did. Tom continued his career in the military. Tessa slowly built up a gardening and landscaping business. Once, while on holiday overseas, they had passed a truck with the words Major Tom’s Ground Control – Gardening Services. “Why didn’t we think of that?” Tessa had lamented.

They had also lost their only child. When she was eight years old, Francis had gone home with a friend after school. Two blocks from the friend’s home, a car went through a red light and hit the passenger side where Francis was sitting. She died before the ambulance arrived. The friend’s mother had phoned; Tessa knew as soon as she heard the woman’s voice. 

“This sadness will never go away. There’s a hole that can never be filled,” Tessa said.

“No. But we can get each other through it,” Tom said.

He didn’t know how, and if you asked him now he wouldn’t be able to recall or explain; but they did get each other through it. They cried together, were quiet together, and slowly started to do normal things together, even though it never really felt normal. It still hurt, decades later, but they were able to laugh again; they were able to better appreciate branches swaying in the wind and crisp, clean sheets and the smell of freshly ground coffee and the smiles of passing strangers.

Now Tom wondered if they would see each other’s smiles again.

“Are you afraid of dying? I am afraid of dying,” Tom had confessed to Tessa one evening when they were in the garden drinking tea. “It’s not that I fear what’s waiting, or that there is nothing waiting. It’s that I don’t want my time to be cut short.” That was maybe twenty years ago, but the feeling had not gone away. He was now not yet seventy – by today’s standards, not an old man – and could reasonably expect another ten good years, at least.

“I don’t know if there is anything more scary to us than dying,” Tessa said. “Maybe that fear is the reason we do all the best and worst things that we do.” 

They made love in the garden that evening; a lovemaking they both remembered and sometimes reminded each other of. 

Tom recalled other times they had made love. The time they were on holiday in Venice. The time they moved into their house, before they unpacked. A time that had nothing exceptional or different about it other than that he remembered it. 

He wanted to remember all the times. He wished they were available to him to play back on demand. Why should some events be remembered and so many be forgotten? Are they not all valuable?

His phone rang, and it was Tessa.

“They say I can’t come see you,” she said, weeping. “It’s awful.”


There had been no improvement by the fourth morning. Breathing was a physical and emotional strain. In one of the many articles he’d read in those first, uncertain, panic-stricken days of the disease, someone had described it as feeling like you were drowning.

Only once in his life had Tom felt anything like that, when he was dumped by a wave, tumbled so viciously around that he didn’t know which way was up, and powerless to the force of the water. He’d taken a lot of water in, and when the wave subsided and he found his way back to the surface it took him what felt like much longer than a few moments to remember how to breathe.

This didn’t feel like that. The wave was brutal in its suddenness. This was a slow burn. Uncomfortable, to be sure, but the real agony was in the uncertainty. Would it get better or worse?

He had read that one of the characteristics of resilience was the ability to face reality. Optimism, it said, was not necessarily an asset in a crisis. The theory was that if you know and are realistic about what you might be dealing with, you are better equipped for it. That makes sense, but how, he wondered, are you supposed to deal with the possibility of your own death, or the death of those closest to you? You cannot scenario plan that. There is no if-this-then-that. Death is not job loss or financial hardship or emergency measures. Death is final and absolute. And you deal with it however you deal with it, if you are the survivor. Or not, if you are not.

When the enormity of the pandemic began to dawn on people, Tessa said she thought the world was going through a collective mourning. She saw in herself and others denial, bargaining, depression and anger (but at that point, not yet acceptance), often at the same time.

“We are scared we may die, or people we love may die,” she said, “but we are grieving because something in all of us is dying.”

“Maybe some of our stupidity will die, too,” Tom had said. “Maybe we’ll realise how obscene it is what people earn to run after a ball on a football pitch. Probably not, but maybe we’ll start to appreciate teachers and nurses more.”

“Major Tom?”

Tom opened his eyes and looked at a nurse.

“Ground control?” he replied.

The nurse laughed. Tom smiled. He had maintained a sense of humour. That was something the resilience article should have mentioned.


By day five the ward had got busier and Tom’s condition had got worse. His medication had him drifting in and out of consciousness. He dreamt he was in space, one man sitting in a tin can far above the world.

Communication with ground control was erratic. Was it because everyone was sick? “Stay put,” they commanded him, “you’re better off.” His military training compelled him to follow orders, but it was against his will. He didn’t want to be up there, alone. He wanted to be with Tessa. But he couldn’t get back to earth without ground control’s help. Nothing to do but float, wait, hope.

And hope, he knew, coming out of his dream, was something. Hope was more than faith. It was a sensible somewhere between fantasy and surrender, preferable both to wishing and giving up.

In more lucid moments, Tom was able to take in what was happening around him, and there had been a change since he arrived in intensive care. There were more beds in the ward, he thought, and they were all occupied. There was more movement, and greater pace. There was more urgency, and greater desperation. When he thought he heard a doctor say something about a shortage of ventilators, he wondered if being on one meant he was depriving someone else, and if he might be costing someone else their life.

He imagined the hospital waiting rooms filled with sick people, and doctors having to decide who would get treated and who wouldn’t. And he wondered if a doctor having to make such a choice might feel more personally responsible and more traumatised than a soldier killing an enemy. And then he was back in space.


Tom had no idea that his sixth day was his sixth, or even that it was day. It was simply shades of darkness and lightness. His life was not yet flashing before him, but in the moments of light he attempted to relive the best of times. Francis, of course. Her birth. Her birthdays. Her first ice cream. Her pretty green floral dress. Her arms around his neck, as she kissed his forehead.

Then darkness.

Then lightness. His own boyhood. Sitting on his dad’s shoulders. His mom putting a plaster on a cut. A swim in a tidal pool he couldn’t remember the location of. His best friend David (did David know he was ill, Tom wondered?); the two of them riding their bikes; the two of them giggling in his bedroom; the two of them talking about girls. The first time he kissed a girl. 


Then light again. His parents’ pride at him finishing school. The road trip they took that summer. Introducing them to Tessa; Tessa’s nervousness. He and Tessa going to see Pulp Fiction, staying in the cinema after it ended so they could watch it again straight away. He and Tessa going dancing. He and Tessa making a paella. He and Tessa drinking coffee in bed in the morning. He and Tessa…


Light. Tessa laughing. Tessa crying. Did he speak to her on the phone today? 



The seventh day.

“Ground control to Major Tom.” 

The nurse feeding him breakfast. 

The ward disappearing into a blur.

The nurse wiping his chin. The nurse trying to be cheerful. The nurse being tender. The nurse holding back tears. 

The breaths, shallow and laboured. 

The phone next to his bed. The silence.

The nurse’s hand around his. The nurse’s eyes looking into his. 

The weightlessness of his body. The poster on his bedroom wall. Francis’ voice, after all this time. Tessa’s tender smile.

The nurse listening to Tom slowly getting the words out.

“Tell my wife… I love her very much.”

*Illustrations and inspiration by Clint Bryce. (Thanks buddy.)



The Man I Grew Up In Front Of

October 10, 2019

I don’t know his name. I might have, once. I can’t remember. We were friendly. As friendly as a 19 year old white guy and a 30 or maybe 40something year old black, homeless and usually drunk black guy could be. We’d pass each other in the street in Sea Point and acknowledge each other. There’d be some banter. Some joviality, even.

Maybe it was motivated by my white guilt and the kind of social awareness and desire for justice that a university student has, but I felt it narrowed the gap between us. Between our circumstances, which, it still seems to me, we were powerless over. 

I lived in a Sea Point flat for quite a few years, and then in another Sea Point flat for a few more. About nine or ten years all together, which is a long enough time to build a relationship, which is what it was, of sorts. But it has been about twenty years since I left Sea Point. And yet, walking past him now, I still recognise him. I don’t know if he still recognises me, especially because he is drunk. Still drunk.

At the beginning he wasn’t always drunk, but at the end – twenty years ago – he was almost always drunk and fucked up, with some bloody gash on his face or with swollen lips or walking on crutches. I assumed he got into fights; what other explanation was there? 

I wonder if, in his drunkenness and through his injuries, he still recognises me. 

“Give me some money!” he slurs, abruptly, carelessly, callously, desperately, wishfully, what-have-I-got-to-lose-edly. “Give me some money!” he says again on slurry, wobbly legs that are miraculously keeping him upright.

I gesture that vague gesture that, in my mind, is the beginning of a probably unnecessary explanation and that, in his mind, is simply a “no”, which as far as he is concerned is all that is necessary.

Still wondering if he recognises me, I recall that this was always the basis of our friendship. An exchange. A mutual courtesy, for me born out of guilt, for him born out of a humiliating necessity. We would smile at each other, money would pass from my hand to his, and I would feel better about my humanity, and he would be better off by a few rand, briefly.

The answer is yes. He still recognises me.

“You grew up in front of me!” he reprimands. He judges me, either in moral disgust or a last ditch attempt to induce guilt, to induce my hand into my pocket.

This is not as it should be. He has always been my senior in years but never in circumstance or privilege. We both have reason to be outraged, but instead we have both surrendered. It is what it is, and it is what it will always be, until, I expect, he finally dies of drunkenness or in a fight, or both. And when it happens, it’s unlikely to be in front of me.

I don’t have any money. That is the truth, but I doubt if he cares. 






Relax, the Trump Presidency is just a show

February 16, 2017

South African news has just been too depressing for too long, so I don’t read that much of it anymore. What I have been lapping up to a possibly unhealthy degree is American politics. You’d think that with everything that’s gone on since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the considerable amount of time I’ve spent following it, that I’d be shitting myself for the future of the world. But the fact that it is all happening over there, and not here, allows me to absorb it all with a kind of riveted detachment. It is engrossing, and full of drama and suspense. But I can switch off from it and get back to my normal life like it was nothing more than a temporary distraction, until the next instalment.

It’s a lot like a TV show, I realised. But it’s also an evolution of TV because it doesn’t just happen on TV. It happens on the internet, and on social media, and on pretty much all media. Which is a natural progression for entertainment in our times, isn’t it? Donald Trump is aware of this, and he works it hard on every medium he can. He is a showman, after all, and he knows how to draw a crowd. Even during his campaign, he apparently said it didn’t matter that Hillary was leading the polls because he was leading in the ratings.

Being a multi-medium show is only part of what makes it so successful, though. The other compelling thing about the Trump presidency is that it is also a multi-genre show. It’s clearly rooted in Reality TV (which is a genre Trump knows well from The Apprentice) in that we seem to be following “real people” doing “real things” and behaving as they “really” are, just in a somewhat unreal situation.

But the Trump Presidency Show has elements of a contradictory and, at the same time, complementary genre that we could call “Unreality TV”, because it is so full of fabrications and made up shit. You have characters using lies to defend lies, “alternative facts” to present the false as true, and fake news to accuse factual news of being fake news, all to such a far-fetched extent that you don’t know what’s actually real and what’s not.

Then there’s an additional genre that the Trump Presidency Show borrows from – that of fiction. But it is the sub-genre of fiction that pretends not to be fiction because it is “based on a true story” – a line that is usually so open to artistic license that it is basically meaningless and is only actually put there to make you think that truth is stranger than fiction, when it is pretty much 99% fiction anyway.

To be fair, the Trump Presidency Show doesn’t actually use the line “based on a true story”. But to anyone in South Africa it’s obvious that the show is based on something true and real. And that, obviously, is the South African presidency.

The Trump Presidency Show would never say that because South Africa is too far away and too insignificant to matter to an American or global audience, but the parallels are clear. Just think about the protagonists.

Donald Trump is playing the role of Jacob Zuma. They are both presidents, obviously. They both have a certain “try stop me, I don’t give a fuck” swagger about them. Both give the impression of being impossibly stupid and, at the same time, unnervingly sly, in a way that we can’t quite put our bewildered fingers on.

Kellyanne Conway is based on Baleka Mbete. One is a mouthpiece, the other is a speaker. Coincidence? I think not. And both characters have a common purpose and motivation, which is to unwaveringly defend and protect their president, and they seem to not mind being laughed at while they do it.

Then there is the man behind the president, the one who appears to be playing a supporting role, but who we suspect is actually pulling the puppet strings: Stephen Bannon, playing the you-know-whos (and if you don’t, they are the brothers whose last name starts with the seventh letter of the alphabet, and no, it’s not the Brothers Grimm).

And, of course, there’s an ensemble cast of cabinet picks who bear strong resemblances to many of our own ministers.

I imagine that you, too, have had a few conversations around which president is worse. In my experience Americans tend to say Trump and South Africans say Zuma, which is to be expected I suppose. At times I feel myself being seduced into such fun discussions, and my opinion is that while Trump is a greater threat to world peace, he doesn’t seem intent on screwing over his entire population the way Zuma has.

But then I remember that it’s a pointless and academic debate to have. The Trump Presidency isn’t even really real. So we may as well all just relax and enjoy the show.


A Putin Putdown - or is it?

January 19, 2017

So, like, the other day, there were these allegations about Donald Trump allegedly doing something alleged with allegedly Russian prostitutes, allegedly. The allegations could be fake, could be fact; that is not the concern of this post.

The concern is that Vladimir Putin felt it necessary to come to Donald's aid by saying that whoever put those allegations together is/are "worse than prostitutes".

Let's just take a moment to take in this putdown. To call them "girls of loose morals", as he did, is kind of so last century, isn't it? (Although why should I be surprised? Clearly Vlad prefers the strongman, authoritarian environment he grew up in to the more evolved one we now live in.) In the first place, they are not "girls", they are women. In the second place, how does he know anything about their personal morals? Are they murderesses? Fraudsters? Are they harming or hurting the people they consensually have sex with? How are their morals any looser than those of people who text while driving, or break the speed limit, and accidentally kill an innocent family? And besides, which occupation is not without some moral greyness? I wrote ads for a living for a while - some might say that is pretty immoral in some ways. What about lawyers defending the guilty? Not exactly morally unambiguous, right? Prostitutes are trying to make a living, like everyone else.

Okay, I acknowledge there are still many people in the world whose morals are very 19th century. Maybe even most people. But even making that hypothetical assumption, what is confusing is that uncle Vlad then actually seems to stick up for the people he has just insulted, because he goes on to say about these girls of loose morals that "ours are undoubtedly the best in the world".

It's an interesting choice of words, to say that this assessment is "undoubted". One can't help wondering, who exactly doesn't doubt it? And what proof do they, or he, have? 

But that is just a fascinating little digression from the main point here, which is the contradictory logic of Bad Vlad. Is he giving a back-handed compliment or a back-handed insult? Is he ashamed or proud of these women? Are they a reason to pity Russia or visit it? Would he like to be rid of them, or to have more of them? Because essentially what he is saying is this:

Prostitues are shit (and I don't think he means good shit). But no one has shit like us.


2 wheels, 1 saddle, not a lot of success

November 5, 2014

So I’ve been trying to teach my daughters to ride a bicycle.

Because (1) they are now 6 and 8, which is way old enough to ride a bike, (2) it’s kind of a life skill (maybe not as much as swimming, but close), (3) riding is cool, and it feels lovely, and is good for you, and for the planet, and mainly (4) I have these fantasies about us going out as a family on Sundays and riding on the promenade or in the country and having great times and making memories that we will remember for a long time.

I haven’t articulated this to my daughters, but I mean really, they see other, younger kids popping wheelies and shit and you’d think they’d go I wanna do that! But, not so much. At least, not with 2 wheels. But Stella’s training wheels broke a while ago, so it seemed opportune. I took them to the area next to the Cape Town Stadium where it’s flat and open. Lily rode on the bike that she got when she was 2 and which makes her look like Gulliver on a bike made in Lilliput, while I held onto Stella’s saddle and ran behind her at a weird angle that probably wasn’t very good for my back until I could see she was balancing fine, at which point let I let go and yelled YOU’RE DOING IT!, at which point she panicked and fell over and hurt herself and refused to get back on the horse bike ever again.

I can understand. For her it must be how I imagine it would be for those guys I see riding on the mountain when I’m up there running. Don’t ask me what possesses them to ride up that hill. But riding down is probably even more hectic. If it were me riding, I imagine a loose stone or a jutting out rock would cause me to lose balance and fall over and break a few bones or maybe die, and then still go tumbling over the side of the mountain and lie there for a few days before some snake finds me and alerts the police but not before taking a few bites out of my tasty legs. So I suppose that is a bit of what Stella is feeling.

When I brought the subject of riding up again some time later they both said not without a helmet, which is both reasonable and sensible, so I got them a helmet, but they were still reluctant. I tried to incentivise them with new bikes once they got the hang of it, but they weren’t biting.

Then I remembered this thing called google – have you heard of it? – and I googled how to teach kids to ride a bike, and what I found was that what you should NOT do is take them to a flat, hard area, because they are likely to fall and hurt themselves and not want to ride a bike ever again. Hello? Ring a bell? It said that what you SHOULD do is find a soft, grassy area with a gentle slope so they can learn to balance, then to brake, then to steer, then to pedal. Not all at once, like Stella did – perfectly – until she actually realised she was doing it.

Anyway, I suggested this method to my daughters and to my surprise and delight they were actually very keen. I got all amped and went onto gumtree to look for new bikes for the girls but my wife suggested I was maybe getting ahead of myself and putting the cart before the bike or something like that, and wasn’t it more financially prudent to wait until they were actually riding, which I reluctantly conceded.

So off we went to De Waal park. The girls each had turns on the 16 inch bike, and in between riding we snacked and looked at the trees and the dogs and the mountain and then we rode some more and snacked some more, and it was all peachy. In the car on the way home, they even said dad, can we do this every weekend? And in that moment my heart sparkled and I loved my girls so damn much and everything in the world was good.

So, skeeming I was onto a good thing, the next weekend we went again. Lily had one turn and lost interest and went off to snack. Stella had about 5 turns and lost interest when I suggested she pedal, which was clearly a step too far, even though she had mastered the steps of balancing, braking and steering. My heart didn’t sparkle on the way home that day.

I am not the sort of dad to push my daughters to be a doctor or musician or Nobel prize winner or anything else they don't want to be. Except maybe capable bicycle riders. But even that, I guess, is like any other parental push – more for me than for her. So I haven’t mentioned the bikes again. Maybe my reverse psychology will work. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe one day my daughters will wish they were better cyclists.

Meanwhile it seems my fantasy of family rides is just that. And I may need to get used to the idea of going solo on Sundays.

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